The reshuffle is a circling of wagons. Politicians and pundits will pore over its details, seeking to decide whether or not it means a shift to the right or the left, and whether it signals a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit. These calculations are beside the point. Theresa May’s situation is desperate: she has lost the confidence of her colleagues. She did not dare to sack anyone from her Cabinet, and risk sending a new enemy to the backbenches. She was thus restricted to filling the single vacancy left by the loss of Ben Gummer. She did so by bringing back Michael Gove, who she sacked only last year, quarrelled viciously with in government, and was mocking as recently as last week. She could not have provided a more vivid illustration of her weakness.
In nearly every respect, this desperate reshuffle is actually quite a good one, in so far as it makes any difference. Yes, Damian Green, now deputy Prime Minister in all but name, is a long-time Remainer. But his appointment is balanced out by Gove’s. Indeed, Leave campaigners are now one person up round the Cabinet table, given the latter’s return (though Andrea Leadsom, now Leader of the House, now only has right to attend). The significance of Green, a fluent politician who was under-promoted during the Cameron years, is that he one of May’s oldest political allies, having first met her at university. With Gavin Williamson, the Chief Whip, and Gavin Barwell, the new Chief of Staff, he is part of a three-man bodyguard for a Prime Minister now stalked by would-be assassins.
David Lidington moves to Justice. This is in one way an excellent appointment, since he has the brains and compassion to tackle prison reform, and the diplomatic skills to handle a restive judiciary. In another, it is a puzzling move, since he has a Whip-like side which served the Government well in his previous post. Our Brexiteer readers will note that one of their number has replaced him. The sole promotion and demotion were much in line with ConservativeHome’s predictions: David Gauke was on our list for Work and Pensions; Liz Truss no longer has charge of a department. Otherwise, all is stasis and gridlock. As for where this reshuffle leaves the form of Brexit that May will now pursue, the brutal answer is that there is no Cabinet agreement yet.
The one reappointment which is deeply problematic is that of the Party Chairman. Patrick McLoughlin is a great servant of the Conservative Party, and the most effective of its recent Chief Whips. That CCHQ was not ready for a general election was not his fault: the poll was sprung on him at no notice. For that reason, though, it has had the effect of a snap Ofsted inspection that concludes a school must go into special measures. Only two years ago, at the 2015 election, Andrew Feldman and Grant Shapps covered the problem of an ageing and falling membership by conjuring up Team 2015, whereby busloads of activists were moved from safe seats into target ones. And Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor’s data, together with Jim Messina’s, did the business.
These are early days to draw hard and fast conclusions, and any proper post-mortem will take time. But it is very clear that there is trouble at the mill, for three main reasons. First, the Mark Clarke scandal and the Thanet South prosecution seems to have had the effect of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There has been no replacement on a national scale for Team 2015. That mattered in the target seats. There were not enough boots on the ground. Second, the data was flawed. As we wrote yesterday, Jim Messina laughed off YouGov’s new research model on Twitter. But they were right and he was wrong. This complacency made all the difference between gaining a small majority and not winning one at all.
May was not short of votes: indeed, she stacked up the highest proportion of the total since Margaret Thatcher, and the greatest number of votes since John Major, and his record-breaking performance in 1992. It follows that the art of getting over the winning line is to find more where it matters; there is no point in piling up support in seats that one already holds. It would be deeply unfair to dump all the blame for the campaign failure on Lynton Crosby’s research, since he was not fully in charge, and the Party’s manifesto bears at least as great a share of the responsibility. But the evidence that this site is gleaning from candidates and canvassers suggests that much of it was simply mistaken. And VoteSource, as ever, failed to fire on all cylinders.
Third, the Party’s social media game is beginning to look creaky. There is a media fad for puffing the effectiveness of pro-Corbyn sites and videos and memes. But there can be no doubt that a generation of young left-wing activists was all over social media like a rash. We offer a single example. In one marginal seat that the Conservatives lost, the sitting MP was targeted over his expenses. These were not in any sense excessive or even unusual. But the mere effect of highlighting them was enough to rock his campaign. There was no organised rebuttal. Momentum could have done the same to every single sitting Tory MP. And a right-wing equivalent could have returned the favour to Labour incumbents.
This is not a campaigning world any of us should want to live in. But some serious thought needs to go into how the Party should handle social media in an election that will surely come before 2022. Buying up Facebook adverts is no substitute for getting a message from a mate. What CCHQ needs most a businessman-type politician at the top who can review its campaigning effectiveness, make recommendations, and see the necessary reforms through. There are not many of these around; the most suitable is probably Jeremy Hunt. McLoughlin has the benefit of having been in place for a year, and at least knows where all the bodies are buried. None the less, he has Cabinet committee duties elsewhere, and CCHQ needs its Chairman in residence.
On balance, a new broom is required. It follows that the old one cannot provide it. May has failed to move perhaps the only member of her top team who is loyal enough not to have resented being told his time was up. Perhaps she is planning a further shake-up in due course, when the Government has stabilised after an arrangement with the DUP, and there is return to something like normality. But readers will have spotted the flaw. This may never happen. For all the protection of any confidence-and-supply deal and of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, governments without majorities are vulnerable. An election as early as the autumn cannot be ruled out. We are sorry to remind our exhausted readers of this. But whether or not one happens, an opportunity has been missed.